Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bon cinéma!: Fantasia Fest 2009, week one

Every summer Concordia University in Montreal plays host to North America's greatest genre film festival.

A couple days after arriving back from beautiful Montréal's incredible, annual Fantasia Fest, I've plucked some favorites from my overcrowded brainpan.

1. Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008): What an experience! A four hour perverted paean to love that coasts along with uniquely Japanese pop charm. Exhilarating, cross-cutting montages meld with heartbreaking melodrama with the stamina of a marathon runner. Seeing it with a sold out enthusiastic audience---God bless those daring young Québécois---was the highlight of a strong festival week.

2. White Lightnin' (Dominic Murphy, 2009): I've not seen the well-regarded documentary Dancing Outlaw, nor did I manage to see the follow-up doc The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (which also played at this year's Fantasia), so I was a wee innocent to the exploits of mountain dancin', gas huffin' Jesco White. This is the film Walk the Line never coulda been, a truly debauched and thoroughly rollicking bit of psychosis! Filmed in Desatura-Vision in the wilds of West Virginia and...Croatia!

3. Die Schneider Krankheit (Javier Chillón, 2008): A faux-documentary short film should be awful, but this 10 minute gem shot on 8mm Tri-X stock is brilliant. It's a mocked up German newsreel about a mysterious pandemic and science's strange efforts to contain it, including the breeding a leech-turtle hybrid. Guy Maddin should be envious.

Here's a brief trailer:

4. The Clone Returns Home (Kanji Nakajima, 2009): Refreshingly quiet, this cosmic vision of regret, sadness, and loss of identity is enriched with lovely imagery of Japanese countryside. It gave me goosebumps.

5. House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977): In stark contrast to the painterly beauty of the previous film, lays House. Resurrected in vivid HD, this collage of a film engulfs the audience in cliché, kitsch, and lysergic imagery straddling the line between cartoon and genuine madness. Definitely overdone in every respect, it nevertheless projects a primal love of cinema.

Smoked meat! Bagels! Poutine!!! Fantasia's disturbing subway posters.

After bingeing on movies and Tim Hortons coffee (“Toujours Frais,” indeed) for a week reality starts to slip away, screenings run together in my mind (the two Clive Barker adaptations that premiered, Book of Blood and Dread have congealed into one lumpen mass). Such is the overwhelming joy of Fantasia.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Naked City: "Carrier" (1963)

This woman is dangerous. Sandy Dennis plays a carrier.

Kept in isolation in an island hospital since the age of fourteen, Loraine Kirshwood has been shielded from the outside world because she is the carrier of a fatal disease, the rare Van Norton Sawyer's Fever from New Guinea. One day she slips out of her entrusted prison into New York City. The police---led by the ever earnest Paul Burke---are called in to track down this modern Typhoid Mary.

Sandy Dennis is perfect casting for Loraine, a person truly out of step with the world. Hopelessly naïve, tentative in every step, Sandy brings much charm to this tabula rasa. Her first destination on her journey is a children's zoo, where she encounters an eight year old schemer who charges a quarter to escort her inside. That night she is enticed into a bossa nova nightclub by a lecherous scumbag with promises of an empty apartment to stay in. Escaping from his groping hands, she encounters Alan, an agoraphobic confined to his efficiency apartment---a person just as imprisoned as her. These two people, alienated through separate afflictions, begin a sweet romance.

Alan, imprisoned by agoraphobia.

When the police catch up with Loraine, Alan escapes his confines in concern for her. Loraine is returned to her island, while Alan promises to return to see her. As he bends in to kiss her, she backs off.

Paul Burke as Detective Adam Flint closes another case.

It's a somewhat bittersweet ending. Well, it's a particularly bitter ending for that slick-haired, smooth-talking degenerate from the nightclub. He dies a prolonged, dehydrated death, the sole fatality from Loraine's little adventure.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

Sandy Dennis in a beautifully sad moment courtesy of
cinematographer László Kovács.

(Busy blogger Jeremy Richey has dedicated the month of February to films which have eluded the U.S. DVD market over at his excellent Moon in the Gutter blog. Check it out, I guarantee you'll come across a slew of movies that you must see now. This is my nomination for digital revival.)

“I want to tell you something. If you feel you want to make love to's alright.” She instantly corrects herself: “I want you to make love to me.” Then whispers, “Please.” It's the films most touching dialogue, part of lengthy confession delivered in Sandy Dennis' trademark halting, uneasy manner. The scene's resolution---or lack thereof---is the greatest frisson in a film immersed in cold, damp loneliness. Frances Austen's human contacts are limited to her prying maid and nearly-embalmed set of friends (on of whom is in constant pursuit of her affection). An act of impulsive naivete, leads her to invite an apparently mute young man out of the torrential rain into her cloistered apartment. The two forge a grotesque relationship, she living out a childlike daydream of a domestic partner---chatting, preparing meals, shopping for his clothes. He, at first silently observing a woman out of touch, soon becomes imprisoned.

It's a horror film about being alone and about body repulsion (Frances' trip to a gynecologist is supremely creepy, as if filmed by a voyeur). Often compared to Repulsion (1965), That Cold Day in the Park presents a far more sympathetic monster than icy Catherine Deneuve. Sandy Dennis' Frances Austen is touching and cute (“I've never seen someone go about without socks before, it gave me such a peculiar feeling,” she delivers with sincerity), socially inept, and, probably, mentally ill. This is the darkest role Ms. Dennis ever played, and her idiosyncratic ticks are perfectly at place in this character who fumbles for words, and hides her shyness behind her deceased mother's sense of order. It's a performance that builds to a crescendo in the aforementioned plea for companionship, which is brilliantly cut off at the point of hysteria, denying the character (and viewer) any release.

Frances Austen procures a prostitute (the wonderful
Luana Anders) for her prisoner.

Occupying an important place in Robert Altman's filmography (right after Countdown, just before his critical breakthrough MASH), That Cold Day began a thread of female melancholia explored further in Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Though those later films are more refined (and far more hallucinogenic) That Cold Day in the Park, with its fluid László Kovács photography and haunting Johnny Mandel score beguiles in its awkward intimacy.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

L'Éternité pour nous (1963)

Jean Marc (Michel Lemoine) is a moody piano player in a desolate seaside hotel, pounding out simple tunes for simple tastes. His wife and chanteuse (Sylvia Sorrente), with an obscene body threatening to explode out of skin tight sweaters and hot pants, feels her raging youth being snuffed out by the quiet surroundings. In a room upstairs lays a man dying, the elderly husband of the hotel manager, Maria. Languishing in this off-season purgatory, the beautiful characters engage in various erotic trysts, in between staring out of windows and laying face down in sand. This is like an Antonioni film with more of an emphasis on large breasts. There is a murder (the old man gets extinguished with arsenic), and all the dramatic posturing and platitudes just fill in the time between several artfully shot, genuinely sexy sequences. Jose Bénazeraf carefully stages the actors movements, exploiting the erotic potential of the widescreen format.

Sorrente is an amazing presence, her body impossibly athletic and pneumatic. Her dance scene to a slinky Louiguy composition is a stunner, surely the highlight of the film.

Carefully avoiding nudity, L'Éternite pour nous still manages to smolder. It's Bénazeraf's most classically made film, downright humanistic compared to the films to follow.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye Ann Savage, Renegade Girl (1946)

"And suddenly she turned to face me." It's hard to shake that indelible image of Ann Savage as Vera in Detour waking from sleep and turning her head toward the camera with a feral glare. That look begs me to run my hand through that greasy hair while she scratches out my eyes. Can't blame Tom Neal for acting like a pussy-whipped sucker around this cat. She's scary. This is one of the greatest B-movie performances ever. Ms. Savage died on Christmas day 2008 at the age of 87. I commend Guy Maddin for getting one last performance from her in My Winnipeg---I'd love to see this. Till then, I'm watching Screen Guild Productions' western Renegade Girl, released December 25th of 1946, a fine showcase for Ms. Savage.

Confederate Jean Shelby (Savage) is torn by a desire to kill her brother's murderer, Chief White Cloud, and to marry the man she loves, who happens to be a Union officer. Separated from her love, she becomes hellbent on vengeance, making a deal to marry the man in her group of bandits who kills White Cloud. While she has the horny raiders under her spell, she has made herself the Yankee's most wanted woman.

There's a kinkiness to this film, most pronounced in a scene where Jean is giving a pep talk to her marauders. As she pulls open her blouse to show them the knife scar White Cloud gave her, it cuts to a reverse shot of the grubby men edging in for a look. Jean is tougher than the men, wide-eyed psychotic on the trail of vengeance, but also a quivering mass of regret. "Everything I touch dies...dies," she repeats stumbling through the woods.

Her death, in the arms of her love, is heartbreaking. "I would have wrecked your life," she tells her man in a moment of clarity far removed from Detour's Vera. I almost feel like replying, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Running Woman (1998)

Art restorationist Emily Russo (Theresa Russell) is framed for the murder of her young son, throwing her into a vast conspiracy involving the LAPD and a prominent philanthropist with a shady Government defense contract. Russo goes from being a grieving mother to a fugitive with a suitcase of disguises in no time flat. With the help of a secret brotherhood of Mexican priests, she can perhaps find peace and freedom.

A bit too polite, Running Woman is a chase thriller that should've been turned up a few notches. Theresa Russell's undercover investigation into the Latino gang banger scene never reaches the level of danger it deserves. Andrew Robinson as a LAPD detective is slimy and smarmy, but his über-fascist rants seem cut short. If you're going to spray the nerve gas Sarin into someone's face, please show the victim convulsing, foaming at the mouth, and turning green. In a film punctuated with boat chases, car chases, and helicopter explosions, restraint should be tossed out of the nearest window.

The reason to buy a ticket to this show is Theresa Russell, who is so cool that she can make the ridiculous character arc seem effortless. Her sly smile and naivety, particularly in her scene amongst the Latino low-rider enthusiasts, is adorably incongruous to the paranoid proceedings.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

L'Enfer sur la plage (1965)

Jose Bénazeraf's take on the espionage film may at first seem typical of the genre---a sun-baked setting, beautiful women, raucous action, and a Sylvie Vartan song over the opening credits. But the actors (all unknowns) and direction ranges from understated to detached. The story---as far as I can tell---concerns the head of a gunrunning ring hiding out in his yacht with his wife and younger partner. They are being targeted by the MI5 and a terrorist organization. This is all a contrivance for Bénazeraf's camera to study women's faces. The two female leads are diametrically opposed, one a coquettish blond pixie, the other a more serious woman with darker complexion and thin nose.

The supporting actresses further the film's cool aura.

There is only one brief flash of nudity in this film, but several scenes of slow-burn eroticism. It's not the best introduction to Bénazeraf, but this rarely-seen early work is pleasantly diverting.